Congress eyes changes to trucking laws, could allow interstate travel for drivers under 21

truck-highwayWASHINGTON — The Senate highway bill says the Department of Transportation “may” establish a pilot program to permit drivers under 21 to take big rigs across state lines.

 The version approved by the House last week says the department “shall” pursue such a pilot program for young drivers.

In the coming weeks, House and Senate negotiators will be hashing out their differences on federal trucking policy, grappling with everything from driver drug testing to ways of dividing grant dollars. The final results will ripple across an industry that represents an important economic engine for states such as Nebraska.

Safety advocates have attacked the GOP proposals on truck safety regulations as a recipe for more dangerous highways.

But supporters, including Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., say the changes are common-sense reforms to rein in federal agencies that have overreached with arbitrary rules that do little to improve safety.

The safety provisions are part of a six-year reauthorization of federal transportation programs that cover highways, railroads, buses and more. During that period, the House bill would spend $325 billion, the Senate $350 billion.

Fischer could play a role in the final legislation. The Senate has yet to name its negotiators, but Fischer is certainly in the running because she serves on two of the key committees — Commerce, Science and Transportation as well as Environment and Public Works — and is a member of the GOP leadership team.

On the issue of younger drivers, Fischer would prefer to require the pilot program rather than leave it to the department’s discretion. She had pushed for that initially in the Senate bill, before the wording was changed in a compromise with Democrats.

But Fischer sees other language in the House version as unworkable, since it would open interstate trucking only to drivers who are 19½, rather than 18 as in the Senate bill. And the House bill also would require that an experienced driver ride shotgun with the younger drivers.

“It wouldn’t make much business sense,” Fischer said of putting two drivers in the same truck.

The pilot programs under discussion would involve contiguous states voluntarily entering into compacts so that younger commercial truck drivers could travel between them.

The trucking industry has pushed to lower the federal age limit on interstate trucking as it struggles to deal with a shortage of drivers. Proponents of lowering the age restrictions also point out that younger drivers already can drive a big rig hundreds of miles across a state like Nebraska, but can’t cross from Omaha to Council Bluffs.

Safety advocates, meanwhile, say younger drivers are inherently more accident-prone and have no business piloting 80,000-pound behemoths down the highway. They are pushing to keep the age restriction at 21 and turn back other proposed changes to safety regulations.

Jackie Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said her group was grateful that the House rejected one amendment that would have increased truck weights, but that was the only cause for celebration.

“Tomorrow, the backroom, closed-doors negotiations between the House and Senate begin,” she said in a statement after last week’s House vote. “I urge our nation’s leaders to stand up for safety. The public will pay with their lives and their wallets if corporate lobbyists win.”

The House voted last week on one amendment to strip out the younger drivers provision entirely, but it was defeated 248 to 181. All House members from Nebraska and western Iowa opposed the amendment.

Rep. Brad Ashford, D-Neb., said the trucking profession is a great opportunity for young people coming out of high school or community college. He said the government should not create unreasonable obstacles to job creation.

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